Audit Questions FWP Block Management Payments

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS — An audit of the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Park’s Block Management Program questions why the agency is paying some private landowners a fee to allow hunters to access their land when the agency has already purchased conservation easements that guarantee hunter access.

The audit was presented to the Environmental Quality Council on Thursday. Legislators on the council weren’t happy, The Billings Gazette reported.

Auditors found 26 block management areas that were either partly or wholly contained in 23 conservation easements with provisions that the landowner allow public hunting access and establish a minimum number of hunters that must be allowed on the land.

The audit found that between 2001 and 2012, FWP paid nearly $2 million through the Block Management Program to easement landowners. The report said if those payments were excluded, the agency would have another $200,000 annually to enroll other lands. FWP didn’t enroll any new land in the Block Management Program in 2012 due to a lack of funding, the audit found.

Republican Sen. John Brenden of Scobey said the department is complaining that it needs more money “and yet people are double-dipping. That’s insane.”

FWP Director Jeff Hagener defended the payments in his response to the audit, saying block management is a way to compensate landowners for hunter impacts, not access, and such payments can be used as an incentive to get a landowner to agree to a conservation easement.

Block management rules say cooperators may be entitled to “additional forms of compensation” through department programs, Hagener noted.

The primary purpose of a conservation easement is to conserve wildlife habitat and allows hunting access, Hagener wrote, adding that the Block Management program helps landowners administer access and offset the impact of that access.

He said some Block Management Areas may include more land than was purchased in an easement.

Hagener did agree with a recommendation that the agency address funding shortfalls by reducing total expenditures or finding ways to increase revenue, 80 percent of which comes from the purchase of non-resident hunting licenses.